Do we take The Simpsons for granted?
That certainly seems to be one of the central theses of tonight's hour-and-a-half extravaganza of Simpsons 450th-episode coverage, that the show, which has been on so long that when it started, I was in grade school, has become such a cultural institution that we don't even really notice it's there. It's like running water or the absence of the Berlin Wall, according to Morgan Spurlock, director of the Simpsons-centric documentary that forms the latter hour of the coverage. When the show finally ends, of course, it will be a time to consider a life without it, but even then, there will always be reruns. (Indeed, my local Fox affiliate has replaced its nightly Office rerun at 11 p.m. with The Simpsons, which was what it used to run until The Office became available in September. Like I Love Lucy or M*A*S*H, this thing will always be with us.)
Only a handful of shows ever have lasted to 20 seasons, much less past it. The number of scripted shows can be counted on two hands, and that's only because Law & Order joined their ranks this year. In an age of fragmenting audience, a time when even the biggest of hits can be reduced to a shadow of itself in just a few seasons (seriously, when was the last time you heard someone talk about Desperate Housewives?), the singular achievement of The Simpsons seems even more impressive. To be sure, the show is not what it once was, but it's still reliably entertaining, I'd say, and there have been a handful of episodes even in these last two or three seasons I'd stack up against the show's glory days.
Also, to a degree, The Simpsons has had a natural decline from its height. Its sustained period of brilliance, which I'd mark as the first eight seasons, with seasons 3-8 being perhaps the finest stretch of sustained excellence in the history of the medium, was always going to lead to a step down at some point. (The same thing's going to happen to Pixar, people, and we'd all just might as well get used to it. Also, Brad Bird is involved in both. Coincidence?) And, at the same time, so much of television has just gotten better, so that even if The Simpsons has declined from an A show to, say, a B+ show, it can SEEM like it's declined to a C show relatively, because many shows - including many comedies and many animated comedies - have taken the innovations the show pioneered and ran with them. There'd be no Arrested Development without The Simpsons, for one, but it's also arguable that we'd have a 30 Rock or an Office or even something like Mad Men (though that argument's sketchier). Similarly, because of the quality of those first few seasons, it's easier to feel disappointed in the show, whereas something like Family Guy doesn't suffer from the same high expectations.
But I may be a little biased. Despite how hard I can be on the show here, The Simpsons is locked in a knock-down, drag-out brawl with Deadwood for my favorite show of all time. When I need to feel better, all I need to do is pop in any disc at random from the show's first eight seasons, and it'll pick my spirits up within the space of a single episode. My wife and I will say things that are Simpsons quotes to each other without even knowing they're Simpsons quotes, and I imagine we'll pass those on to our kids someday. Jack Shafer of Slate once argued that we'd know my generation had taken over the media from the baby boomers when Simpsons quotes started appearing in headlines as reliably as rock 'n' roll lyrics, and I don't think he's wrong. It's a cultural monolith that sometimes seems unapproachable beyond saying that it's not as good as it was.
But what of the 450th episode?
The Simpsons: This feels like the 500th time that Anne Hathaway has done a guest voice on the show (and I'm not far off in that estimation, actually), and it amuses me that one of Hollywood's top actresses apparently enjoys the show so much that she'll return to do guest voice after guest voice. There was a sense of the problems that have plagued the last 250 episodes or so in this one, like the panoply of guest voices (including Far Side creator Gary Larson?), the somewhat random story development and the fact that the story was yet another variation on "Krusty's show is in trouble!" which is something the show has done many, many times before. And yet, there were a lot of really solid laughs in the episode, from Lisa being roped in by Princess Penelope because she had a unicorn to Homer's lengthy dissertation on why donuts are so great. And I liked that the ending seemed to suggest that Krusty and Penelope will be married from now on, though I imagine that's unlikely to affect the show overall, since Hathaway's probably unlikely to become a regular. It was a funny episode with a nice amount of heart, which seems to be the best we can ask the show of nowadays. Grade: B
The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special in 3-D on Ice: This I'm less certain about. As a documentary about The Simpsons and its creation, it might have been good, if consisting entirely of material that's already fairly available to fans. But as a documentary about the show's crazy fans, it left a little something to be desired, particularly because the whole thing was anchored by Morgan Spurlock, who always seems more interested in his own interactions with the fans than in the fans themselves. Spurlock's odd blend of Errol Morris' examinations of normal people with interesting traits with Michael Moore's camera-loving persona doesn't always fail. His FX series, 30 Days, is one of the better documentary series on TV, as a matter of fact. But here, the segments where he travels the world to see what people's collections look like are uniformly weak, whereas the talking heads from influential figures in the show's creation - like Conan O'Brien - and people who love the show and were influenced by it - like Seth MacFarlane - are involving and entertaining and a good reminder of just how much ground the show broke. As MacFarlane points out, on his shows, he can get away with a good deal, but in the early days of The Simpsons, the show came under fire just for having Bart talk back to his parents. So the special is half good and half irritating, which works out, roughly, to a Grade: B-
The Cleveland Show: Finally, maybe it was the fact that I'd just gotten to see quite a nice night of Simpsons entertainment, but I liked this Cleveland Show more than last week's episode, though I'd be hard-pressed to tell you just what it did better this week beyond making me laugh more than last week's episode did. Cleveland's attempts to come up with an invention with his friends were funny - particularly the ongoing battle over what to call the coaster with wheels ("Roller Coaster" or "Brew Choo Train"?) - and I liked the story where Cleveland, Jr., fell in love with Roberta wearing a fat suit and trying to learn how the unattractive live, predictable as that story was. Perhaps all of this is because Cleveland and his son are my favorite characters on this show, and there are times when I'll laugh at something Cleveland, Jr., says just because of the delivery of the line. It's a great voice, for one, but it's also coming from the one character the show seems to have completely thought out. Grade: B
- "The world may end in 2012, but this show won't."
- "Real humor comes from people being nice to each other."
- "First girls ruined Sex in the City. Now this."
- "I agree it's cliche, but she does have a certain ... UNICORN!"
- "Girls don't laugh and they don't buy cigars."
- "Oh, Bart, you say that now, but when you grow up, you'll just think it."
- "Oh, why do clown things always happen to clowns?"
- "I work like I drink! Alone! Or with a monkey watching me!"
- "Oh, Bart, this is all happening so fast. Let's call my mom together!"
- "This kid and his ugly sister are right."
- "I just made a call on a cracker. I just ate a phone!"
- "It's like Netflix but with shirts."
- "You're starting to put yourself before the project. And you, sir, are no Alan Parsons."
- "Is it true you guys can clap your breasts together like a seal?" "No!" "Thanks a lot, Wikipedia."
- "A real girl who likes me and not a prostitue or a robot!"